After months of what seemed like endless amounts of money and ignorant comments from politicians receiving said money from Internet Service Providers to squash net neutrality, it looks like there's some hope on the horizon. According to a statement issued on Wednesday by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the Internet may remain the wild frontier of free expression and innovation it was originally intended to be.
Net neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers (like Comcast and Verizon) should treat all web content equally. Net neutrality supporters think Internet service should operate like electricity. Consumers pay a fee to an Internet service provider and they get equal access to the whole Internet -- every website, big and small -- without any interference from the service providers.
The fear among many net neutrality advocates was that Tom Wheeler was a poor choice for the role FCC Chairman. He was nominated by President Obama in 2013 and at the time, Wheeler was the managing director at a venture capital firm. He had previously spent 12 years as CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, a telecom trade group, and before that served as president of the National Cable Television Association, a cable lobbying company. "He's beloved in the telecom industry," a former Obama administration official told Mother Jones last year. Wheeler breezed through a confirmation in the Senate.
Some Internet service providers (ISPs), such as Comcast and Verizon would like to be able to go into financial arrangements that would give particular websites prioritized access to Internet users. For example, Netflix has a financial agreement with Comcast to insure that their streaming video will have faster and more reliable access by viewers.
Proponents of net neutrality worried that if this trend were to continue it could be a slippery slope. Websites that are able and willing to pay ISPs for prioritized access would have an unfair advantage over smaller operations or startups. Additionally, there were concerns that ISPs would charge home users more for access to sites requiring better connections -- movie watchers, gamers, and others could potentially be charged more for speedy access. Avoiding this scenario requires some government regulation.
Earlier this year, Obama chimed in. In his announcement, he suggested that the FCC should reclassify Internet service providers as common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, meaning they would be treated as a public utility. In effect, treat the internet like phone service subjecting them to more regulation. Currently, the Internet is classified as an "information service," which limits how much the FCC can regulate it.
Members of Congress, particularly those who receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from service providers, see this move as unnecessary. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), for example immediately took to Facebook and Twitter calling Net Neutrality "Obamacare for the Internet." Which makes perfect sense if he were to see Net Neutrality as a way to cut the costs of the Internet and allow many people who have not been able to get online for a long time to finally have affordable access. For Cruz, however, who has received tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from major telecoms, it's just his little way of saying that he's against Net Neutrality -- because anything with "Obama" in the name sucks.
Shortly after Cruz's tantrum, the Internet erupted with cartoons, videos, and comments. After all, the Internet is full of creative people who have unfettered access to the Internet right now.
The most unlikely attacks to Cruz's comments came from his own base. While the left likes to entertain the idea that conservatives are half-witted, gun-toting rubes, many of the "fans" on Cruz's Facebook page didn't fit the caricature of bleating sheep wearing tricorn hats.
Here are just a few samples:
Ed P: As a Republican who works in the tech industry I can say that this statement shows you either have no idea what you are talking about or you are bought and paid for by the American Cable monopoly. This is amazingly an stupid statement and is disheartening.
Keith F: Ted, I am as conservative as they come.... I want government out of just about everything... and I hate to say it, really hate to say it, but Obama is right on this one. I do not want my access and internet speed controlled by my ISP. It will be. The internet has been an open forum with little to no restrictions, that will change and not for the better. Bottom line, do not go against freedom of the net just because Obama is for it. Even an old blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.
Adam H: Go find whatever rock you crawled out from under Ted and stay under it! Proud republican here, but not so proud to be blind like the good senator. Look how "great" our free market Internet is!!! I pay $100 a month for 15mbs / 100gb p/m capped Internet. Yep, those "free" markets really make it better lmao
David V: Texas employer here... This is really the wrong issue for you. Drop this quickly and move on to something else before it's too late. You're starting to look like a Tea Party whacko growling for his corporate masters. Move on before you embarrass the Republicans out of the next presidency. Net neutrality is about ensuring a free market. America loves a free market. But hey, be against free markets and America. It's cool. I'm sure no one will think of you when their Netflix slows down who wouldn't have before.
Sam A: Senator Cruz, you are wrong on this one. As a conservative voter and IT professional, I can assure you that Net Neutrality is a GOOD THING. Internet providers (who are also content owners) can't be trusted (as has already been proven) to allow consumers equal access to content from their competitors. This is why the government needs to ensure Net Neutrality as it protects the consumer from the bias of their Internet provider. This is especially true since we don't have real competition in this space.
As for the ISPs themselves, their lobbying efforts and expenditures have been off the charts. Net neutrality's biggest opponents (Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and their allies) have lobbied against net neutrality about three times as hard as the biggest proponents of neutrality (Level 3, Google, Microsoft and their allies). Comcast alone has spent $14.6 million in an attempt to own the internet. AT&T even threatened to halt its rollout of a high-speed fiber network until the rules were more clearly defined. So, while the rest of the world has faster and cheaper internet, we're still arguing about who gets ownership.
America lags behind many countries when it comes to the kind of world-class network we should have. In terms of speed and access America trails Sweden, Estonia, Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, to name but a few. As for price? According to an article in HuffPost:
Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, claims it's capable of providing 3Gbps broadband -- but its fastest service currently on the market is $320 a month for 305Mbps. Verizon, meanwhile, has just announced its fastest FiOS ever, 500Mbps for $310 a month. Compare that to Hong Kong, where consumers can get 500Mbps for $25 a month, or Seoul, where the same speed is priced at $30 a month. Only Google Fiber's broadband plan seems competitive with those of other tech-savvy nations: It offers 1Gbps for $70 a month, which is only outpaced by Japan's proposed Nuro network with speeds of up to 2Gbps for $51 a month.
In Sweden, for example, people pay about $30 per month for gigabit access as opposed to our ten megabits per second or less. Sweden, Japan, Hong Kong and many European countries offer connections nearly 100 times faster at lower rates. In America, we're arguing over Net Neutrality that could allow service providers Comcast, Time Warner and others to "throttle" internet speeds and charge content providers and customers more for "high-speed lanes." Movie watchers, music lovers, gamers, etc. would all be affected if Congress and the FCC allowed what are essentially monopolies to set their own speeds and prices. Want to play a game with your friends? More money. Want to watch a movie without having to watch that little hourglass every five minutes? More money. How about this article? Are you old enough to remember when a page with this much content and images could take 10-15 minutes to load?
A decision that went not wholly unnoticed last week is that Wheeler's Democratic majority at the FCC voted to change the definition of broadband Internet from a minimum of 4 megabits per second to 25 megabits per second -- a great step towards getting broadband providers to deliver faster services to more users.
Perhaps one of the more effective moves in this debate was by John Oliver, formerly of the Daily Show and now of the HBO show "Last Week Tonight" who encouraged viewers to take advantage of the 120-day open commenting period on the FCC's Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet proposal and tell the government what they thought of the plan.
"Good evening, monsters," Oliver said, before urging online commenters to submit their comments to the agency's site.
In Oliver's 13-minute description of the net neutrality debate he was decidedly negative toward the FCC's plan, comparing TV and Internet provider Comcast to a defense contractor considering the amount of money it has spent lobbying for a tiered Internet.
Then, he called for action.
"We need you to get out and, for once in your lives, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction," Oliver said. "Seize your moment my lovely trolls, turn on caps lock, and fly my pretties, fly, fly!"
And fly they did. Within two days the video was viewed over 800,000 times and the FCC website essentially crashed. More than 47,000 public comments were filed on the proposal in the first 30 days. One comment blasted "cable company fuckery," using Oliver's line. Another visitor cited a claim made by Oliver on the show: "It is embarrassing that Estonia has higher download speeds at lower prices than the USA."
Since then and to date the site and the FCC has received nearly four million comments from people around the country. The internet spoke and it would appear that the FCC listened. In a statement published in Wired on Wednesday, Wheeler wrote:
Originally, I believed that the FCC could assure internet openness through a determination of "commercial reasonableness" under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. While a recent court decision seemed to draw a roadmap for using this approach, I became concerned that this relatively new concept might, down the road, be interpreted to mean what is reasonable for commercial interests, not consumers
That is why I am proposing that the FCC use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open internet protections.
Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply -- for the first time ever -- those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone's permission.
In layman's terms, this means that the internet is going to remain open and equal. Basically nothing has changed, which is, for the most part, what most net neutrality proponents wanted.
Under Title II, communications service providers must provide consumers with services and prices that are deemed "just and reasonable" by federal regulators.
Internet activists, tech companies, progressives, and President Obama have all endorsed the Title II route, which they say would give the FCC legal authority to enforce tough rules establishing the core concepts of net neutrality -- preventing broadband providers from blocking or discriminating against web content and striking so-called "fast lane" deals with content providers that can afford special fees to reach consumers faster.
The GOP, on the other hand, would like to see the internet subject to the same partisan games we've been subjected to on every single piece of legislation that has ever crossed their door. They've presented their own bill to include banning the FCC from using its authority and huge gaping holes in the forms of exceptions. So much for the GOP idea of small government.
"The FCC appears to be moving toward achieving one of the most important victories for the public interest in its history," said Craig Aaron, CEO of the pro-net neutrality group Free Press. "Title II is the best legal means to ensuring everyone's right to connect with everyone else online."
It's important to note that the final decision on whether to keep the internet truly open is not up to Wheeler's alone however. Two Democratic commissioners and two Republican commissioners sit on the FCC's five-member panel and must vote to finalize new rules. But a public interest-minded FCC chair makes it easier for the agency to implement net neutrality regulations on the side of the end-user. In the meantime we wait, keeping in mind that way we game, surf the web, and stream music and movies hinges on an imminent decision to keep things the way they are.
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